the model legislator

Though I live in San Francisco now, I was born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin. My parents still live there, and in a certain sense, Madison will always be “home” to me. I voted in Wisconsin via absentee ballot in the 2004 election, which allowed me the opportunity to cast my vote for one of the few politicians that I honestly admire: Russ Feingold.

I agree with most if not all of the political stances that Russ Feingold has taken over the last number of years, but that is not why I like him. Agreement with my own personal views on an issue is largely irrelevant in determining the respect I have for Senator Feingold. Rather, I respect Senator Feingold because, for the years in which I have been paying attention, he strikes me as a Senator who puts principle before politics.

The most notable example of that is the PATRIOT Act, passed by Congress in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks. Sen. Feingold was the only Senator to vote against its passage, for reasons he described in this statement that he gave on the floor of the Senate on October 25, 2001, the day it passed the Senate:

“We all also had our own initial reactions, and my first and most powerful emotion was a solemn resolve to stop these terrorists. And that remains my principal reaction to these events. But I also quickly realized that two cautions were necessary, and I raised them on the Senate floor the day after the attacks.

The first caution was that we must continue to respect our Constitution and protect our civil liberties in the wake of the attacks… The second caution I issued was a warning against the mistreatment of Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, South Asians, or others in this country. Already, one day after the attacks, we were hearing news reports that misguided anger against people of these backgrounds had led to harassment, violence, and even death…

[T]he bill before us is certainly improved from the bill that the Administration sent to us on September 19, and wanted us to pass on September 21. But again, in my judgement, it does not strike the right balance between empowering law enforcement and protecting constitutional freedoms…

The anti-terrorism bill that we consider in the Senate today highlights the march of technology, and how that march cuts both for and against personal liberty… We must grant law enforcement the tools that it needs to stop this terrible threat. But we must give them only those extraordinary tools that they need and that relate specifically to the task at hand.”

I have presented only a few excerpts from that speech that give a broad overview of the reasons that Feingold was opposed to the PATRIOT Act, but the speech as a whole reads like a summary of the last eight years to me, given my concerns about the direction in which protection of civil liberties in America have moved over that time. He warns against abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (like this one), and cautions that “even as America addresses the demanding security challenges before us . . . [w]e must guard against racism and ethnic discrimination against people of Arab and South Asian origin and those who are Muslim” (and despite what some right-wing commentators might say, I agree with Adam Serwer on this one).

In his opposition to the PATRIOT Act, Senator Feingold embodied the qualities that I think are crucial in a legislator, regardless of their constituency. When I elect a Senator or a Congressman, I do not necessarily want someone who simply keeps their poll numbers in their district or state high by making the popular decisions. Instead, I look to elect someone who will take all of the information available to them on a given issue (much of which is probably not available to or referenced by people when taking public opinion polls) and, given that information, vote in the best interests of their constituents.

With the PATRIOT Act, Feingold’s “Nay” vote did not “matter.” It was purely symbolic. But for me, it represented a promise made by Feingold to Wisconsin: as a Senator, he will do not just what is popular or what is dictated by popular opinion in his state, but he will do what he honestly believes is in the best interests of the state. I want that from a legislator much more than I want adherence to a party line. I think that Ron Paul has shown a similar attitude on his side of the aisle, often speaking out against demagoguery and encouraging real debate on the issues. I may not agree with Rep. Paul, but find that I trust (to the extent possible in politics) that he has reasons other than simply poll numbers for his positions.

As I write this, Feingold is locked in a tough senate race in Wisconsin, with Nate Silver giving him a favorable (though much too low for my tastes) 67% chance of winning over his opponent Ron Johnson. I know little about Ron Johnson aside from the fact that he’s poured a ton of money into this race and is touting his “outsider” credentials in the race. But I do know that if he wins, Ron Johnson will have an awfully big pair of shoes to fill.

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One Response to the model legislator

  1. Nicholas Kramer says:

    Senator Feingold’s political stances are not the only areas of his life in which he demonstrates absolute integrity. Few people know this, because he makes no effort to publicize it, but every year his Senate office returns money to the federal treasury. It is my understanding that his office returns the highest percentage of its allocated funds in the Senate. On the other hand, my old Senate office, and almost all others, spend every last dime of their funding – just like any government or corporate bureaucracy, the managers believe that if they don’t spend the money, they will get less allocated to them next time, which is clearly an unacceptable option. Senator Feingold himself votes against giving himself (and all other Senators) a pay raise every year or so, because he does not feel it appropriate considering the size of the federal debt – although the raise is approved every time, every year Senator Feingold returns that portion of his salary that has resulted from these illegitimate raises ever since he was elected. He asks his staff to make similar sacrifices. The fact the Senator Feingold is the poorest member of the US Senate in terms of his personal wealth makes this all the more impressive.

    PS You should reconsider Ron Paul’s views – you don’t have to agree with all of them, but his foreign policy views are particularly appealing. Long before he was known on the national stage, he was known as “Dr. No” in the Congress because he votes “No” on almost everything that comes before the House, purely for the reason that he strictly interprets the Constitution’s requirement that all powers not specifically listed reside with the States. I can assure you, almost no other member of Congress has the Constitution in mind when they vote on any particular bill or motion.

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